Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 341-343
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Jenson, Deborah. Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Pp. 294. ISBN 0-8018-6723-1 / 4071-2
In this profound, engaging book, Deborah Jenson develops a comprehensive, highly original analysis of French romanticism. Instead of following the deconstructive lead of Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartmann, who use texts as narcissistic mirrors of their own skepticism, she deploys "a socially inflected epistemology of mimesis" (4-5). Her orientation shifts the concept of "mimesis" from the representation of externality in a work of art to the conscious and subconscious emulation of models in individual (see Freud and René Girard) and collective behavior. She builds on her extensive study of history and social theory with recent work in cultural studies - notably, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble,and Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf's Mimesis: Culture, Art, Society. The social models are political ideals: by mandating certain behaviors, group persuasion and praxis try to constitute these ideologies as realities. The paradigmatic contemporary illustration is the new French principle of "parité" in elections, using gender difference to construct political equality. Yet differences such as gender, ethnicity, and nationality remain irrepressibly seductive.
Jenson reads romanticism as an idealistic politics of pain, practiced by voicing the experience of oppressed groups: women, workers, and racial Others. Chapter 1, "Iconoclasm: Setting Wounds in Stone at the Musée des Monuments Français, 1795-1816" (30-55) begins with the conceptual problems raised by Renan's seminal essay "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation" (1882). He fails to clarify how the tragic spectacle of victimization can be integrated into an image of national unity. Alexandre Lenoir's museum provided one answer: it preserved images and statues vandalized during the Revolution, presenting simultaneously traces of the past and of its erasure, monarchy's self-images and resistance to them. Jenson adroitly integrates discussions of Hugo, Michelet, Volney, Nodier, and Musset into an overarching interpretation of romanticism, which valued "the public exhibition of the signifying structures of political upheaval" but sought to demarcate a personal psychic space that could avoid reenacting the traumata and dismemberment of the Revolution (55). [End Page 341]
Jenson chooses Constant's neglected Cécile as paradigmatic of the transition from Revolution to romanticism (56-86). "Constant was arguably the first theorist to perceive that the industrial revolution, and the globalization of commerce, created an infrastructure antagonistic to the public political agency of citizens as erstwhile legislators" (63). In response, Cécile inaugurates the new genre of political theory à clé. The domineering Madame de Malbée appears "allegorical of the complicity between the 'virtuous' authoritarianism of [the historical abbé de] Mably and the virtuosic usurpations of Napoleon"(75). Constant's vacillation between and within the personal and the political "precisely navigates between the agency of solipsistic reason as the political voice on the one hand and the mimetic agency of relationship as the literary voice on the other," providing insights into "the politics of modern commercial democracies in their literary life" (86).
Chapter 3 examines the mythopoeic qualities of social life, through the exemplary cases of the duchess Claire de Duras and the actress Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Jenson shrewdly contests critics' assumptions that those women's texts mirror their authors. Whereas Margaret Waller's important book The Male Malady explored the personal stakes in the sick role adopted by many male romantics (dominating women by feigning helplessness), Jenson speculates on the political significance of the literary motif of male impotence during the Restoration: "cryptic signs of the approach of the more definitive financial 'emancipation' [from dependence on a noble patron] and political 'virilization' of the male author [who could now, through his eloquence, become a major player in politics]" (97). Stendhal and Henri de Latouche separately stole the motif of impotence from Duras' unpublished Olivier ou le secret after she read it aloud in her salon in 1825; they published their own versions as Armance and as Olivier, and so...